Portneuf Canyon, Idaho Stage Robbery


Portneuf River south of Pocatello, Idaho

Portneuf River south of Pocatello, Idaho

Before the railroad barreled through Idaho Territory, freight and stage lines provided transportation and movement of trade goods, as well as gold, along the routes leading from Montana to Utah.

In 1864, Ben Holladay expanded his stage line through Idaho, and though it provided a much needed service, the paths were fraught with danger. The Portneuf Road, leading from Virginia City, Montana to Pocatello, Idaho often carried gold from the rich Montana mines and soon became the target of thieves hiding out in the forested areas along the trail.

Such was the case on July 26, 1865.

Carefully planned, four outlaws met in a saloon in Boise City, Idaho during May, 1865. Leading the “gang” was a man named Brockie Jack who had recently broke out of a jail in Oregon and had been hiding out on a nearby ranch. The next main member of the group was Big Dave Updyke, who had been elected Ada County Sheriff just a few months previous. Parading as a descent citizen, he was known to have consorted with felons and was watched closely by the Payette Vigilance Committee. The third member was a man named Willy Whittmore, who was known for his quick temper and deadly aim. The fourth man was a little known player that went by the name of Fred Williams.

On May 31, 1865, the four outlaws left Boise City headed toward the Portneuf Stage Route in eastern Idaho, more than 200 miles away. Making camp at Ross Fork Creek near Fort Hall, the men worked out the details of the hold-up. Fred Williams was sent to Virginia City, Montana to gain information about the gold shipments. Once he was sure that the stage line would be carrying the precious cargo, he was to purchase a ticket and ride along as a passenger.

In the meantime, the other three bandits traveled south along the stage road, looking for the perfect place for the hold-up. A few miles south of present-day Pocatello, Idaho, the trio found a narrow canyon that was heavily timbered, rocky, and filled with brush. Determining that the location provided everything that was needed, the bandits began to work out the details of the robbery. They soon gathered a number of large boulders that would be utilized to block the stage road, hiding them out of sight until they were needed. Additionally, they decided that Willy Whittmore, armed with a new Henry repeating rifle, was to shoot the lead horses if the driver found a way around the roadblock.

With the details worked out, the three bandits returned to Ross Fork Creek to wait for their accomplice, Fred Williams. It would be nearly two weeks before they received any word.

Stagecoach with guard sitting on top, protecting whatever wealth it might  have been carrying.

Stagecoach with guard sitting on top, protecting whatever wealth it might
 have been carrying.

On July 21, 1865, the stagecoach left Virginia City with seasoned driver, Charlie Parks, and seven passengers, including one calling himself Fred Williams.

Crossing the Ruby Mountains, the stage spent its first night at the Corral Station near present-day Dillon, Montana. For the next three days, the stagecoach traveled along the route, where the Union Pacific Railroad would later be built, to Pocatello.

Stage coach robbery

Stage coach robbery

On the fourth evening of their journey, the stagecoach stopped at the Sodhouse Station to overnight. After the passengers had completed their evening meal, Williams excused himself and headed toward the Ross Fork Camp. The other outlaws were ecstatic to hear the news that two large strongboxes, laden with gold, were being transported on the stage. After a celebratory drink or two of whiskey, Williams headed back. No one had even noticed he was gone.

On July 26, 1865, the coach set out once again. Around midday, it reached the stream near the place that the three outlaws were hidden in the brush. Slowing down to cross the water, the coach traveled through, went up the bank, and stopped. There, across the road were the boulders the bandits had placed to stop the coach. Suddenly, the outlaws appeared from their hiding places with guns raised.

From the coach, one of the passengers, a professional gambler named Sam Martin, poked his head out of the side door with a revolver in his hand. Aiming at Whittmore, he pulled the trigger and shot off Whittmore’s left index finger.

Enraged, Whittmore shouted, “It’s a trap!” and began to empty his rifle into the side of the stagecoach. In a desperate attempt to escape, Charlie Parks tried to break through the brush but Brockie Jack shot both of the lead horses and the stage stopped dead in its tracks.

Hit by some of the buckshot, the injured Parks scrambled down from the coach and made a mad dash towards the woods. In the meantime, Fred Williams, the outlaw accomplice, and James B. Brown, a Virginia City saloon-keeper, were also able to escape into the nearby timbers.

Finally, Brockie Jack grabbed the rifle out of Whittmore’s hands and the sounds of gunfire ceased. Cautiously, Jack approached the stagecoach while Whittmore and Updyke covered him. “Come out of there with your hands up,” he called, but was met only by silence. He then opened the door of the stage and shouted, “My God, they’re all dead.”

Inside were the five broken bodies of Sam Martin, the professional gambler who had shot Whittmore; Mr. and Mrs. Andy Ditmar, a Mormon couple who had been visiting relatives in Bannock, Montana; Jess Harper, an ex-Confederate soldier who was on his way to visit his parents in Sacramento, California; and a man named L. F. Carpenter, who was headed for San Francisco to catch a steamship to New Orleans.  All were dead except Carpenter, who was injured and feigned his death in order to survive.

As the bandits began to loot the stagecoach and its dead passengers, accomplice Fred Williams staggered from the woods with a shattered arm from one of Whittmore’s deadly bullets. The three other outlaws barely noticed as they were too busy with their frenzied plundering.

Whittmore and Brockie Jack soon hauled the two heavy strongboxes from the stage and cracked the large iron locks with an ax. Inside were 15 heavy gold bars and two large pouches filled with gold dust and nuggets. Two more pounds of gold dust and nuggets were found in the passenger compartment. Pleased with their stolen cache, the four outlaws packed up and rode out of the canyon.

After they were out of sight, Charlie Parks, the stage driver, and James B. Brown, the Virginia City saloon-keeper, cautiously emerged from the timbers. Brown pulled the still breathing Carpenter from beneath the dead bodies and made him and the injured Parks as comfortable as possible inside the coach. He then cut the stage loose from the two dead horses and drove it to Miller Ranch Station.

As the survivors told their story, Parks recognized Brockie Jack and David Updyke, while James Brown positively identified Fred Williams and Willy Whittmore. The insurance company, in an attempt to reclaim its $86,000 loss, immediately offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of the gold and the capture of the robbers. In the meantime, the ever active vigilance committee issued orders to hang the criminals once they were captured.

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